Protection motivation theory (PMT) is a psychological model that explains how people evaluate threats and decide whether or not to engage in protective behavior.
In other words, the theory explore how motivated people are to protect themselves in various situations.
PMT proposes that people base their decisions on two primary factors:
- Threat appraisal: an assessment of a threat’s severity, your own susceptibility to the threat, and how vulnerable you feel.
- Coping appraisal: your assessment of your own ability to take action that will avert or overcome the perceived threat.
If individuals appraise the threat as potentially severe (e.g. it might be deadly) and their confidence in their ability to take preventative action is low (e.g. they won’t be able to control the outcome), they will be highly motivated to engage in protective behavior.
Definition of Protection Motivation Theory
Protection motivation theory (PMT) explains how people process and respond to threats and risks, intending to promote protective behavior.
Ezati Rad and colleagues (2021) provide a clear explanation:
“PMT assumes that adopting a protective behavior against health threats is dependent on personal motivation for self-protection” (p. 2)
According to PMT, individuals evaluate threats and risks through two appraisals: threat appraisal and coping appraisal.
1. Threat Appraisal
The first appraisal involves assessing the severity, vulnerability, and perceived susceptibility to a particular threat or risk (Lahiri et al., 2021).
Shillair (2020) states that:
“…the threat appraisal process includes assessing the severity of the threat and the likelihood (i.e., vulnerability) of the threat happening” (p. 1).
Threat appraisal includes:
- Perceived susceptibility: This refers to an individual’s belief that they can experience potential harmful consequences from a specific threat. In the case of car crashes, those who believe they are at high risk of being in car crash perceive susceptibility as high.
- Perceived severity: This refers to an individual’s judgment about how severe the consequences of exposure to a set threat can be once contracted. For instance, the severity of a car crash is probably medium to high, because it’s common for people to experience lifelong injuries from car crashes.
- Vulnerability: This reflects beliefs about one’s capacity to resist harm emanating from the threat. For example, protective behaviors like wearing a seatbelt may save you in a mild car crash (Lahiri, 2021).
People are more likely to take action if they perceive the threat as severe, believe they are likely to experience negative consequences, and that they could suffer significant harm.
This analysis creates fear and anxiety in an individual.
2. Coping Appraisal
The second appraisal concerns evaluating one’s ability to effectively deal with the perceived threat through various coping mechanisms, such as preventive actions or seeking professional help (Lahiri et al., 2021).
According to Shillair (2020),
“…the coping appraisal process includes consideration of the efficacy of the response, how difficult the response is to carry out (e.g., response cost), and the perceived self-efficacy of enacting the coping response” (p. 1).
Someone’s decision would depend on their belief in their abilities, known as “self-efficacy,” meaning their self-confidence in handling the situation if such an adverse event occurred.
At this stage, circumstances range around assessing oneself capability in implementing suitable methods to avoid damages from the potential hazard allowing decision-making on whether or not to take situational control measures (Lahiri, 2021).
- Response efficacy: One’s perception of the effectiveness of preventive behaviors like wearing a seatbelt for preventing harm.
- Self-efficacy: Belief that one has what it takes necessitates willingness towards maintaining consistent behavioral change (i.e. your ability to drive safely and pay close attention at all times).
- Response costs: This is about the potential cost (both monetary and non-monetary) of engaging in protective behavior, such as how much it might cost to buy a safer car.
Assessing Threat vs Coping
The theory comes together when we appraise threat and coping, and decide that the threat is higher than our ability to cope.
Together, threat and coping assessments determine whether an individual is motivated enough to engage in protective behavior or not (Lahiri et al., 2021).
As Shillair (2020) notes: “if the threat appraisal is stronger than the coping appraisal, then a maladaptive response follows” (p. 1).
So, PMT helps researchers understand why someone does or does not take precautions against specific risks or threats.
Examples of Protection Motivation Theory
- Climate Change: A person might start recycling and reducing energy usage after assessing the threat of climate change (threat appraisal) and understanding that their individual actions can contribute to the mitigation of the problem (coping appraisal).
- Healthy Eating: Upon learning about the dangers of consuming too much fast food, such as obesity and heart disease (threat appraisal), an individual might be motivated to start cooking healthy meals at home, believing it to be a manageable and effective strategy to avoid these health risks (coping appraisal).
- Exercise: A sedentary individual who learns about the health risks of a lack of physical activity (threat appraisal) may start exercising regularly, believing that it’s an effective and achievable way to reduce the likelihood of developing health problems (coping appraisal).
- Vaccination: A person may decide to get a flu vaccine after assessing the threat of the influenza virus (threat appraisal) and knowing that the vaccine can effectively prevent the disease (coping appraisal).
- Seat Belts: A driver decides to always wear a seatbelt after hearing about the high fatality rate in car accidents where seatbelts were not worn (threat appraisal) and recognizing that wearing a seatbelt can greatly reduce the risk of injury or death in an accident (coping appraisal).
- Sun Protection: A person who frequently spends time outdoors decides to regularly use sunscreen after learning about the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure (threat appraisal), and knowing that sunscreen can effectively reduce the risk (coping appraisal).
- Fire Safety: A homeowner installs smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in their home after hearing about the potential devastation of home fires (threat appraisal) and believing that these preventative measures can help protect their home and family (coping appraisal).
- Emergency Preparedness: After understanding the potential threat of natural disasters in their area (threat appraisal), a family creates an emergency plan and assembles a disaster supply kit, believing these actions will help them effectively respond to and cope with any potential disasters (coping appraisal).
Origins of Protection Motivation Theory
Protection Motivation Theory (PMT) was first proposed by R.W. Rogers in 1975 as a framework for understanding how individuals respond to fear-based appeals in persuasive messages.
Rogers built on research from cognitive psychology and social learning theory in crafting this model (Westcott et al., 2017).
The PMT postulates that individuals use two cognitive assessments to decide whether or not to engage in a particular type of protective behavior: the threat appraisal and the coping appraisal.
People evaluate the severity of a given threat and their perceived susceptibility to it, weighing these factors alongside their perceived self-efficacy (the belief that they can take action effectively) (Rad et al., 2021).
According to PMT, fear can evoke emotional responses and may motivate individuals to develop protective behaviors.
However, this response is only useful if people believe that they can make meaningful changes while feeling empowered.
Since its inception, PMT has evolved significantly to include additional variables such as response costs and environmental feasibility into its framework (Westcott et al., 2017).
Scientists have also used PMT to investigate various health behaviors, such nutrition counseling and weight control programs.
Overall, PMT remains a valuable tool for measuring how people perceive threats, estimate possible harm from those threats, and weigh costs vs. benefits associated with expected outcomes when deciding whether to engage in protective behavior.
Protection Motivation Theory (PMT) offers an excellent framework for understanding how people respond to potential threats and risks.
By evaluating threat appraisal and coping appraisal components, individuals make a calculated decision of whether or not to perform specific protective behaviors.
PMT helps researchers predict the best intervention strategies to apply in different contexts to improve public health outcomes by designing persuasive messaging that captures varying risk perceptions.
As demonstrated by examples such as vaccination campaigns, seat belt use, and cybersecurity measures, there is compelling evidence that PMT-based interventions effectively improve individual willingness to engage in protective behavior.
Applying meaningful knowledge derived from protection motivation theory provides insights for formulating effective interventions with behavior modification techniques while encouraging desirable behavioral change among at-risk populations.
Ezati Rad, R., Mohseni, S., Kamalzadeh Takhti, H., Hassani Azad, M., Shahabi, N., Aghamolaei, T., & Norozian, F. (2021). Application of the protection motivation theory for predicting COVID-19 preventive behaviors in Hormozgan, Iran: a cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health, 21(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10500-w
Lahiri, A., Jha, S. S., Chakraborty, A., Dobe, M., & Dey, A. (2021). Role of threat and coping appraisal in protection motivation for adoption of preventive behavior during COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Public Health, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2021.678566
Shillair, R. (2020). Protection motivation theory. The International Encyclopedia of Media Psychology, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119011071.iemp0188
Westcott, R., Ronan, K., Bambrick, H., & Taylor, M. (2017). Expanding protection motivation theory: Investigating an application to animal owners and emergency responders in bushfire emergencies. BMC Psychology, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-017-0182-3